'Tyrone have yet to peak'
Late bloomer Donnelly insists Red Hand have of lot more in their tank ahead of Mayo semi
PERSEVERANCE, it seems, is among Mark Donnelly's most saleable assets as a footballer.
For a man who played three years as an under-21 with Tyrone yet trialed and failed on four separate occasions to break into the senior squad, and was living in Australia at the age of 23, a qualification as a primary school teacher safely banked, it's a wonder Donnelly has undergone such a compelling photosynthesis upon finally attracting Mickey Harte's admiration.
In 2010, at the relatively 'ancient' age of 26, Donnelly made his first footprints in the big bad world of senior inter-county action as an inside forward. Last year, he was fixture on the '40' and now, he seems to be Tyrone's Mark McHugh tribute act.
"The lesson we learned from Donegal is that you have to avoid conceding goals," Donnelly explains of the back-to-basics approach to winning matches Tyrone have undergone and his often fluid role within it.
"The forward line is having to defend deeper, but whatever role you're given on the team, you have to do that because it is a team game and everyone has a particular role.
"A lot of it is down to training and work-rate, I have worked very hard to get fitter and even in the off-season I have been doing that work so that I can get fitter.
"The fitness tests tell you who can play that role, who can cover that kind of distance because there is a lot of running in getting back to defence and then getting up to support the forwards in that Mark McHugh-type role. It is a very demanding role," he stresses.
It's quite the transformation all the same. Back when Carrickmore were chasing their third Tyrone senior football title in-a-row in 2006, Donnelly – by his own estimation – was the second top scorer in the county.
That, despite not taking a free for the club all competition long.
Ditto the All-Ireland under-21 final in 2003, when Dublin beat Tyrone in the final when Donnelly was the obvious outlet and on whom the scoring burden largely fell.
Yet around the time he was attempting to sprout into seniordom, the likes of Owen Mulligan, Peter Canavan, Martin Penrose and Colm McCullough, while all at different points in their career graph, formed an orderly queue in front of Donnelly in Harte's thoughts.
His story is a familiar tale.
He was told to bulk up, so he did. He was told to work harder and to tackle better, so he learned.
"The game has changed drastically since I started out as a corner-forward," Donnelly admits, "the major job back then was scoring and there was not much talk about defending but of course now defending is every bit as important as forward play. It has become a very important part of the game.
"Work-rate is another big thing I have worked on," Donnelly continues, "getting fitter each year, doing more work in the off-season to make sure that I get fitter each year.
"There is a lot of selfless work that you have to do, you have to make a lot of runs back to fill a gap and a team can't put the ball in because you are there and a lot of people would not see that and might assume you are having a quiet game."
So while there are survivors from as far back as 2003, Donnelly – at 29 – doesn't possess an All-Ireland medal and as such, is an in-betweener in the gap between the old guard and the vibrant new crop, a vital cog.
"At the beginning of the year, we had 11 new players in the panel and there was a lot of talk how we were in transition," he recalls.
"We had come up from Division Two and a lot of people were predicting that we would go straight back down and we ended up in the league semi-final and final, which we saw as a big positive. We almost beat Dublin in the final
"Unfortunately we got beaten by Donegal but that was always going to be tough. They were the All-Ireland champions playing in their own backyard.
"It was always going to be a tough game and unfortunately the two goals killed us in that game.
"I think we have learned from those lessons and we have tried to implement them.
"We have had to show a lot of character, resilience and hunger to win those back-door games and I still think there is a lot more in us and that we can produce a far bigger performance.
"Hopefully that performance, along with the character that we have shown to date, will come out against Mayo," Donnelly concludes.